men, masculinities and gender politics

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Healing body, mind and spirit – It’s about time we took a stand

Presentation to The National Indigenous Men’s Issues Conference, Coolangatta, 25 October.

My first duty is to salute the traditional owners.

Being asked to speak on the position of Indigenous men in Australia today, particularly in a positive light, is something of a tough call.

Perusal of available statistics and some of the literature suggests that, generally speaking, we are not traveling well. In fact as men we have been spectacularly unsuccessful in many pursuits.

According to the draft National Framework for Improving the Health and Well Being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Males:

  • we misuse alcohol and other substances at alarming rates;
  • our health is deplorable;
  • with an average life expectancy of about 57 years, we die 15-20 years earlier than our mainstream Australian counterparts.
  • our median age is just 18 years of age, compared to 33 years for non-Indigenous men;
  • violence is rife in some of our communities and we are more likely than women to be the perpetrators;
  • we suffer high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide;
  • we are much more likely to be imprisoned;
  • we are less likely to be employed or to have post-school qualifications; and
  • we have lower personal and household incomes.

On the face of it, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men - and, with us, our families and communities - are the basketcases of Australia.

This is not to say that other Australians, particularly men, do not suffer from these maladies. However, such statistics are more likely to be used to define Indigenous Australian men.

This in itself is a tragedy because - far from the picture painted - we are not all alcoholic and violent gamblers, wasters, deviants and criminals.

I believe these appalling statistics are symptoms of the devastating blow dealt to our identity and self-esteem over the past 200 years. In that time, we have seen a serious breakdown in our traditional roles. As a consequence of historical factors including racism, dispossession and the removal of Indigenous people from their families, many Indigenous men are demoralised and confused about their roles as fathers, grandfathers, brothers, sons and grandsons. We have gone from warriors to victims. This has to change. The blow dealt to us has been crushing but it need not be fatal. We must acknowledge our problems and do something about them.

The fact that forums such as this conference are being held shows that steps that are being taken in the right direction. It is an indication that we recognise that this dire situation calls for action, and fast. Even a decade ago, many of our men would have been too proud or embarrassed to admit any of this. The work of men’s groups around the country too is hugely important.

I am not an expert and I do not pretend to know the answers. Many of you have more specialised knowledge than me. But, as an Aboriginal man with considerable life and professional experience, I believe the keys to breaking the cycle, rebuilding our self-esteem and spiritual well-being, and re-defining ourselves include:

Acknowledging that the pressures on us throughout history have been immense and our mere survival is a significant achievement. But we cannot rest there and use historical factors as foundation for our inactivity and idleness, or worse, as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. The time for being accountable is well past.

We should also seek to draw inspiration from our past. Our warrior ancestors and more contemporary leaders are many. Yagan, Pemulwuy, William Cooper, William Ferguson, Eddie Gilbert, Vincent Lingiari, David Unaipon, Rob Riley and Charlie Perkins to name but a few.

Furthermore, we need to be honest with ourselves. Above all we have to honestly and unreservedly take ownership of our flaws and shortcomings. Violence is never the fault of the victim – violence as a response to any perceived wrong can never be acceptable.

We must also remember that the perpetrators are not always other men, sometimes we are the perpetrators. In some instances, we have been the “men behaving badly”. We behave badly by our silence. Saying nothing implicates us with the act of violence. We have to take a stand. There is no shame in acknowledgment. In fact, to acknowledge is to show strength and courage, not weakness.

As David Patterson has said:

"…men deny their true feelings and the macho man image has prevailed … Men who express their feelings are seen as being less than a man.

We have to get away from this way of thinking if we are to make any progress in the future. We must not pass this on, generation to generation to generation. We have too much inter-generation humbug. Inter-generation trauma, inter-generation pain, inter-generation loss. Loss of land, loss of self-respect, loss of pride, loss of dignity and loss of the spirit and the spiritual. And, most importantly loss of role in family and society. Its time we took a stand! We have to rid ourselves of this false toughness. One thing I can guarantee – if enough of us take a stand it will not take us a generation to fix it.

Notwithstanding complicating factors such as diminished life expectancy and high levels of incarceration, if we want to do the proper inter-generational thing we must take seriously our responsibility to pass on our cultures and traditions down the generations. And we must reject the nonsense that violence, the objectification of women and other anti-social behaviours are the “Aboriginal way”.

Let’s just get this absolutely straight. Violence is not ‘blackfella way’. We simply have to stop corrupting our cultures in this way. Culture is a safe sustaining thing, not a refuge for cowards – nor a site of misery and woe for our women and girls.

Women and girls are precious to any society, we have to value, appreciate and support our women. We have to understand their worth to us not treat them like rubbish!

Ever wonder why it is that so few women are represented in peak bodies such as ATSIC? There are so few that we are virtually squandering half our human talent and resources. The notion that men should lead our organisations and make decisions while the womenfolk look after our children, too, is nonsense.

One thing I cannot emphasise too much is for each of us to understand and accept that we are going to need help from each other and from others. One thing I can absolutely promise, if we are able to clearly demonstrate our resolve to turn things around, our women will be right there – behind us with their support. I know they want to help but we have to start helping ourselves first.

We Indigenous men have to start trusting each other in a different way. We have to start acknowledging the considerable strength and resources we have amongst us - men with strong traditional knowledge and/or professional skills.

We also need acknowledgment of another kind. Acknowledgment of unacceptable behaviour and a willingness to do something about it. We simply have to stop excusing abusive behaviour, speak up, say something, don’t let this violent silence strangle us and who we are or who we know we ought to be. We must destroy the abusive cycle before it destroys us.

As Anthony Franks has said:

"… if men are said to be part of the domestic violence problem, they also need to be part of the solution. Part of the healing process must involve each man acknowledging his actions, and the effects they have within the family and on the community."

We also need each other because the sheer weight of our disadvantage and the gravity of this particular problem demands cooperation and partnerships between Indigenous men and women our relevant organizations (like our magnificent, hard working, under-funded medical & health services) and also with the mainstream services, providers and policy makers.

Taking a stand means accepting that our actions must be long-range, long-term and takes account of our diversity. We have to begin, and some of us already have that journey to healing our bodies, minds and spirits. Remember a journey never seems as long when you walk it with others.

One of my boyhood mates, Mick Adams once said:

... the key to improving the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men’s health and well-being is a holistic approach, which reflects diversity and difference in spiritualities, political beliefs, economic status, sexualities and lifestyles with a balance that recognises the need for health care and interventions across the continuum of care and life span – from prevention, health promotion and early intervention to clinical care, treatment and follow-up.

Strange, he never said anything like that when we were boys scratching around for long bums at Dinah beach in Darwin.

My point is we need to use all our resources not try to struggle on alone.

We need also to work on creating an education system that is more responsive to our boys and young men. Better education, qualifications and skills will aid our self-determination and care for our community. Of course that alone is not enough, we have to play our roles as fathers or uncles or cousins or big brothers telling our young men and boys what it means to be accepted as a proper decent functional Aboriginal man.

If we are able to do some or all of these things, we will not just regenerate ourselves as Indigenous men, but also our families and our communities.

I would like to conclude by talking about a couple of positive initiatives which I am involved in.

The first is the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre of which I am Chair. This not-for-profit company aims, through leadership courses, networking, mentorships and other means, to encourage and support Indigenous leaders at all levels to develop the knowledge, skills, confidence and vision needed to lead communities, organisations and the nation in the 21st Century.

Since July last year, 42 men from throughout Australia have completed our certificate level leadership course. In this course, we run separate sessions on men’s business and women’s business. These sessions provide an opportunity for participants to discuss gender-specific issues.

I am very proud of a statement of commitment, which came out of the AILC’s inaugural course in Sydney last year.

We Said:

AS MEN WE COMMIT TO

  • Respecting our ancestors and elders
  • Protecting our families and communities from all forms of harm
  • Non-violent and non-discriminatory behaviours and practices
  • Respecting and supporting women
  • Respecting and understanding our culture and accepting the responsibility of rites of passage
  • Accepting and sharing the responsibilities of family and parenting
  • Responsible behaviour which provides role models for family and community
  • Nurturing and maintaining our spirituality, our language and cultural attachment to land
  • Acknowledging our history and heroes
  • Promoting partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians

All ten male course participants, along with myself, fellow AILC Director Russell Taylor and our leadership specialist Eddie Watkin, signed this statement and committed to sharing it with ten men in their own communities. I believe the statement reinforces my earlier comments and can support you in the remainder of the conference. It shows that our efforts need not be grandiose, and that each one of us can make a difference if we put our words into action.

Women also participate in our certificate programme – in fact so far they have out-numbered the men (61 to 42). One thing I can say without a shadow of doubt is that the future of Indigenous leadership is in good hands if the AILC certificate graduates are any guide. Be confident – I am.

The second initiative I’d like to talk about is mentoring. Recently, I agreed to mentor a younger Aboriginal man in Canberra. While our relationship will continue to evolve over time, the reason I agreed to this was I know just how important it is to have another man you can rely on and trust. For advice, for friendship for support and to help you up when you fall. Or to tick you off when you are being an idiot. For that word of encouragement at the right time. For teaching you new things, for making you see the other point of view, for understanding, for being there when you need or just for the that gentle inquiry from time to time of - How ya doing brother?

These are some of the reasons we need each other.

You know we have some extraordinarily gifted Aboriginal men in this country.

One of them is a poet called Steve Barney. He wrote a poem entitled Black People Cry .

It goes like this:

Black people cry

And the white people wonder why

Some really try to understand

This strange human, the Aboriginal man

Some wonder what is it this man wants

Is it to relive the past, with tribal hunts

What is it, this thing, they call the dreamtime

Come, don’t be afraid of what you might find

Look, white leaders, do you see a broken race

Then look again, what do you see in their face

Look closely now, at the sparkle in their eye

Justice, equality and land, no longer, will black people cry

 

The challenges are many but we can, again, be warriors.

When will you make your stand?

 

I wish you all and the conference well.

Thank you.